DULUTH – Before the pandemic and the economic crisis that followed, homelessness was already on the rise in the region.

St. Louis County reported an 18% yearly increase in homelessness as of January, when the annual count takes place. That meant 612 unhoused residents, many of whom were sleeping in cars, abandoned buildings or in the woods.

The county has double the rate of people experiencing homelessness as the state overall, said Will Wilson, the county’s continuum of care coordinator. And with the state’s eviction moratorium set to expire in a few weeks, those numbers could jump dramatically.

“The problem is there’s nowhere for them to go,” Wilson said Wednesday. “We need more shelter beds, more permanent supportive housing and more affordable housing especially.”

Increased outreach may be part of the rise in this year’s counted homeless population, but about 1,200 households are actively requesting assistance because of homelessness or being at risk for it in St. Louis County, Wilson said.

It’s a staggering number that the pandemic has inflated, he said.

The county and some cities have rented hotel rooms for homeless residents, but those are reserved for people who have COVID-19 and need to isolate or are at risk for complications from the virus.

Among the homeless residents surveyed through more than a dozen sites on Jan. 22, when the high was 33 degrees, about 284 people were considered unsheltered or sleeping in spaces unfit for habitation.

The count also showed a deep racial disparity: While Black and Indigenous residents make up about 4% of the county’s total population, they make up nearly 40% of the homeless population.

In St. Louis County about 1 in every 386 people is homeless; statewide the average is 1 in 706.

“I know the Legislature is considering funding for prevention of homelessness, and I think we see an urgent need for that,” he said. “We need to get everybody dialed in to this so we can start to get more resources.”